High Water Mark: Catherine Chanter on The Well
In the rain soaked reality of our past Scottish Summer, author Catherine Chanter described to us the drought-stricken world of her outstanding debut novel The Well: a world of murder, mystery, riots and cult religion in an increasingly waterless future
The rain hammers down on the canvas roof of Edinburgh International Book Festival's press tent, above Catherine Chanter's head as she dutifully huddles closer to be heard by The Skinny's dictaphone. Rather ironically, she is talking of drought.
Chanter's debut novel The Well tells of a world in which the water is drying up. The story's narrator, Ruth, is a woman who has been imprisoned by the government at her farm – a countryside idyll and one of the last places on earth where it still rains. When we meet Ruth, she is in the process of being torn apart by accusations and self-recriminations.
As riots over water erupt on the streets, Ruth is accused by many of being a 'scrounger' and held up by others as being a saint. Even more devastatingly, her grandson Lucien has been murdered and Ruth is as much a suspect as anyone. Driven to the brink of madness by this unique and terrifying situation, even she does not know what she may have been capable of.
Responsibility and Care
At this point, enter Catherine Chanter. The Skinny has been enthusiastically blethering on about how clever she has been to smuggle a detective story into this work of quasi-apocalyptic fiction when Chanter gently interrupts. "When I was writing it, I didn't really plot it. I didn't have the idea of a murdered child in it... this is a very bizarre fact, but it is totally true: when I was writing the first draft, I didn't know who killed Lucien. I really didn't write it as a crime novel. I was more interested in how we look after things, how we look after ourselves, our families, our resources, how we care for things. How do we care for our children?" she muses.
"I work with families a lot... who is responsible for Lucien? There's that old proverb 'it takes a village to raise a child'; well, the flip-side of that is it takes a village to lose a child." In a novel about responsibility and care, Chanter wants the reader to ask "not who killed Lucien, but who failed to look after him?"
At this point, the genesis of The Well's themes and the conflux of Chanter's professional work with vulnerable young people and her interests as a storyteller become clear. She describes the inspiration for this book as coming chiefly from two areas. An interest in religious art – specifically portrayals of The Annunciation – as well as an experience she had whilst on holiday:
"I was spending some time in a cottage in the middle of nowhere in England that had no mains water, and so every time you turned on the tap you heard this old electric pump pumping up. It was a very dry summer and you just thought, 'Imagine if this dried up.'"
These two disparate inspirations found form in the character of Ruth, a woman blessed with water in a world of drought, who comes to believe herself to be chosen and whose delusions pave the way to tragedy.
Nature, then, is crucial as the setting to The Well. Chanter speaks of how many post-apocalyptic fictions are set in the city; the potent image of the ruins of our cities demonstrating how far we have fallen.
The world of The Well, however, is in transition. The water is drying up, but there is not yet worldwide drought; there are riots on the streets, but not yet revolution; religion is becoming central to many people's lives again, but the apocalypse is not quite nigh. Chanter decided to write a "rural novel that, because of the internet, is connected to the whole world." This connection is decidedly ambivalent. Chanter says, "I've worked with a lot of kids, a lot of adolescents, who have attempted suicide because of online bullying."
"Given the right circumstances, you can have five women and a caravan and suddenly a religion has sprung up" – Catherine Chanter
In the novel, even in self-imposed isolation, Ruth is plagued by the demon-trolls of the world wide web. However, what was also crucial to Chanter was the idea of the countryside as being the "canary in the mine." When the system breaks down, she imagines, we will first see it in "the puddles, the ponds, what birds eat." If we are paying attention, that is.
Of course, to read the signs, we do need to be more connected to the natural world. One way in which Chanter is interested in this connection is through language. She worries about the loss of idioms, that "if you lose the knowledge of the word acorn, then you lose the phrase 'mighty oaks from little acorns grow.'" Or, as she puts it later in the conversation, "the naming of things empowers people".
Chanter has taught English to children, and works with young people in difficult circumstances. She knows more than anyone the emotional freedom that articulation can bring. Returning to our narrator Ruth, she is trapped by the government, but is also a prisoner of herself. Ruth patronisingly nicknames her prison guards 'Three, Anon and Boy'. To name something is to control it. However, she cannot free herself until she can name herself. As Chanter says, "The greatest prison she is in is of her own making, [she is a] prisoner within herself. The prison really is herself: a past of her own making."
Intimacy in The Well
The novel understands that naming is a double-edged sword, and not all connections are benign. During the course of the story, Ruth becomes the centre of a cult named The New Testament of the Rose - a 'witness of woman' after the 'male' Old Testament and the 'transitional' New Testament. The head of this cult is Amelia, who, almost enchantress-like, beguiles Ruth into believing herself to be a 'chosen one'. It is noticeable how Amelia, like Daisy from The Great Gatsby, 'spoke in a low voice, which meant people always had to get close to her to hear.'
Catherine Chanter laughs before confirming that she has worked with patients who also do this. This technique, she says, is "seductive... it puts you on a very weak footing," and is an example of how, "given the right circumstances, you can have five women and a caravan and suddenly a religion has sprung up."
As Chanter observes, the actual physical closeness of people around you matters. "This group of women, regardless of the faith they offer, just the physical existence of this group are so important to her." Ruth has been besieged by anonymous voices online and she and her husband are withdrawing from each other's touch. She finds physical intimacy in this cult, as well as the freedom to believe in the impossible.
As the conversation draws to a close, and with the rain still battering down on the tent above, Catherine's final thoughts return to language. As the novel ends, Ruth begins to write a list of all that she has seen at The Well. She will become 'a scribe' and try and record all of the natural world that she has witnessed during the years of drought. This process of caretaking is vital to Ruth's mental health, but, Chanter argues, it is also crucial to ourselves as a society and as a world. "If you don't see that there is ash, beech and oak, then all you see is a wood."
The Well is out now in paperback, published by Canongate, RRP £7.99